Check out our video instruction how to file a compensation claim if you experienced a flight-related issue:
Overbooking (Denied Boarding) in the U.S.
1. "Overbooking a flight means that airlines will accept a few additional reservations for seats on a flight beyond the aircraft's seating capacity." Southwest Airlines website
"All of UA’s flights are subject to overbooking which could result in UA’s inability to provide previously confirmed reserved space for a given flight or for the class of service reserved." United Airlines Contract of Carriage
In reality this means that, unfortunately for you, you may be denied boarding even when you have a ticket for a specific flight.
Unfair? Correct. But, this is how aviation business works, and this model of business dealing is not prohibited by the U.S. laws.
Don't panic. The Department of Transportation (DOT) of the U.S. government protects you in such circumstances.
"When an oversale occurs, the Department of Transportation requires airlines to ask people who aren't in a hurry to give up their seats voluntarily, in exchange for compensation. Those passengers bumped against their will are, with a few exceptions, entitled to compensation."
A. Voluntary Bumping
If the flight is overbooked, an airline at the check-in or boarding area will try to find passengers who will voluntarily agree to give away their right to fly that specific flight. Our advice: Do not become a volunteer! Why? Because there is no legal provision and, accordingly, a form of mandatory compensation for volunteers. Such circumstances give more freedom to an airline in dealing with your matter, which means that there is a big chance you will not get the best "deal."
B. Involuntary Bumping
"DOT requires each airline to give all passengers who are bumped involuntarily a written statement describing their rights and explaining how the carrier decides who gets on an oversold flight and who doesn't. Those travelers who don't get to fly are frequently entitled to denied boarding compensation in the form of a check or cash. The amount depends on the price of their ticket and the length of the delay:
If you are bumped involuntarily and the airline arranges substitute transportation that is scheduled to get you to your final destination (including later connections) within one hour of your original scheduled arrival time, there is no compensation.
If the airline arranges substitute transportation that is scheduled to arrive at your destination between one and two hours after your original arrival time (between one and four hours on international flights), the airline must pay you an amount equal to 200% of your one-way fare to your final destination that day, with a $675 maximum.
If the substitute transportation is scheduled to get you to your destination more than two hours later (four hours internationally), or if the airline does not make any substitute travel arrangements for you, the compensation doubles (400% of your one-way fare, $1350 maximum).
If your ticket does not show a fare (for example, a frequent-flyer award ticket or a ticket issued by a consolidator), your denied boarding compensation is based on the lowest cash, check or credit card payment charged for a ticket in the same class of service (e.g., coach, first class) on that flight.
You always get to keep your original ticket and use it on another flight. If you choose to make your own arrangements, you can request an "involuntary refund" for the ticket for the flight you were bumped from. The denied boarding compensation is essentially a payment for your inconvenience.
If you paid for optional services on your original flight (e.g., seat selection, checked baggage) and you did not receive those services on your substitute flight or were required to pay a second time, the airline that bumped you must refund those payments to you.
Conditions and exceptions:
To be eligible for compensation, you must have a confirmed reservation. A written confirmation issued by the airline or an authorized agent or reservation service qualifies you in this regard even if the airline can't find your reservation in the computer, as long as you didn't cancel your reservation or miss a reconfirmation deadline.
Each airline has a check-in deadline, which is the amount of time before scheduled departure that you must present yourself to the airline at the airport. For domestic flights most carriers require you to be at the departure gate between 10 minutes and 30 minutes before scheduled departure, but some deadlines can be an hour or longer. Check-in deadlines on international flights can be as much as three hours before scheduled departure time. Some airlines may simply require you to be at the ticket/baggage counter by this time; most, however, require that you get all the way to the boarding area. Some may have deadlines at both locations. If you miss the check-in deadline, you may have lost your reservation and your right to compensation if the flight is oversold."